Her varied oeuvre, a mix of fiction, essays, and memoirs, fascinates me. This week I read McCarthy’s last novel, Cannibals and Missionaries, a political novel about terrorism, published in 1979. Forty years later, it is a powerful historical novel about liberals and terrorists, art and property, economics and class, mediation and violence. It was billed as a thriller by the publisher, but it is really a psychological novel.
McCarthy masterfully develops their characters while analyzing politics and the psychology of liberals and terrorists. Two Arabs and a Dutch couple hijack the plane. When they appear with their guns, only the Senator and Henk understand what must be done to keep the peace. The irritating Aileen keeps chatting compulsively and wondering where her meal is. (Some Orthodox Jews are served first with a Kosher meal.) And she is so pissed off that she loudly wonders why their group has been targeted rather than the tour group of millionaire art colletctors in first-class, who also headed for Iran. And so the terrorists also take the collectors hostage.
The terrorists take the hostages to a Dutch farmhouse. Nothing much happens at first. McCarthy chronicles the intensity of their boredom: there is nothing to read, and no one can play games all the time. The Senator introduces them to a match game called “Cannibals and Missionaries” which Navy flyers played in World War II. Not surprisingly, when a terrorist plays it he favors the cannibals.
The flippancy of Charles, a witty, flamboyant elderly gay man who was headed for Iran with the art collectors, even befriends the terrorists. His reactions to the terrorists’ demands—Holland must drop out of NATO and cancel relations with Israel and they must release criminals from trisons—are hilariious but also thought-provoking.
“It only needs a weensy change of perspective, doesn’t it? A little bird tells me we’re not the enthusiasts for ‘law and order’ we were a few days ago. It was that interesting third demand that brought it home to me. Why, my dear, if the whole criminal population of Holland were turned loose…I’d have no objection as long as it meant that I’d be able to journey to Naqsh-i -Rustan with my ears and toes and fingers safely about me….Till today, I’ll confess, I’d tended to look on our penal institutions as a necessay evil. And, as for the second demand, can we honestly say that it would be a tragedy if Holland were to leave NATO and suspend relations with Israel? My own answer, I admit, woudl be prejudiced. As a pacifist, I hold no brief to NATO, and though I’m not unsympathetic to Israel, I feel she could use a little lesson.”
The art collectors are told they will be released if they arrange for their families to deliver some of their most valuable works of art to the terrorists. A Vermeer painting becomes a symbol both of first world privilege and civiliation, when Helen announces she would rather die than endanger it.
A fascinating, important book for today.